Grim, bleak, desolate. These are just a few accurate words to describe It Comes at Night, the moody new slow-burn horror joint from writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha). An unrelenting apocalyptic mood piece about how people cope with the end of the world, vagaries and uncertainty abound, and the oppressive downer nature is certain to crush the spirit and will to live of many a viewer. Which means it’s my kind of bummer.
We’re talking atmospheric minimalism here. There’s one setting; a creepy old house isolated in the woods. And the credits include ten names—one of whom dies in the first scene, two who don’t have names and only appear once, and one who’s a dog.
The civilized world is over. That much is clear, and it’s one of the few instances of clarity in It Comes at Night. A vicious, fast-acting plague of unknown origin descended on the world at some point—not so recently that the chaos is still fresh, but not so far in the past that people fully grasp what’s going on. Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) live in seclusion, adhering to a stringent set of rules to ensure survival. When a desperate young family—Will (Christopher Abbott), Kim (Riley Keough), and their toddler son Andrew (Griffin Robert Falkner)—shows up on the scene, it pushes their already-tenuous situation deeper into peril.
Despite falling into an uneasy routine—it’s nice to have people around, they seem like good folk—paranoia and mistrust seep into each interaction. And from that, It Comes at Night derives it’s creeping pressure and tension. Whatever’s out there, whatever threats lurk beyond the locked red door, the most immediate dangers are those close at hand.
Shults sets a sparse narrative table, dishing out just what the audience needs to know about the world and no more, and that lack of exposition is sure to frustrate many viewers out there. We don’t get rich, detailed backstories—all we really learn about these people is that Paul was a teacher and Will worked odd jobs—or an intricate account of what happened. What we know about them comes from observation, and much of the mystery originates from whether what we see is in fact their authentic selves or a carefully constructed act.
Edgerton is no stranger to playing the bearded manly man, willing-to-do-what-it-takes character—a good man, pushed to extremes to protect his family. Violence simmers just below the surface, and even though much of the surface action remains quiet and low-key, dread oozes from knowing it’s close at hand. From the very first scene, it becomes clear how far Paul is willing to go as he puts ailing grandpa, Bud (David Pendleton), out of his misery, and that colors everything that follows.
While Edgerton sets the tone and drives the narrative, Kelvin Harrison Jr. steers the thematic core. Haunted by ominous, apocalyptic nightmares, Shults uses Travis as a gauzy, ambiguous harbinger. Are these dreams signs of things to come? Warnings of impending sickness? Or the byproduct of a child—even as a late teen, Travis comes across as much younger—participating in the death of his grandfather, with whom he shared a bedroom? Or maybe he’s just a horny teen who’s been through some rough shit?
Cinematographer Drew Daniels (Krisha) makes the most of the limited settings. He films the exteriors in a way that enhances the feeling of isolation. Even outside, the characters are contained—penned in by the forest, there’s always a ridgeline in the distance that makes them feel like they’re in a bowl, increasing the uneasy sensation something unpleasant waits just out of sight. Inside, the walls and the framing press the characters together, a visual representation of fate or destiny or the circumstances that force them against one another.
If you’re after concrete explanations, look elsewhere. It Comes at Night is beyond content to leave the audience with more questions than answers and let viewers draw their own conclusions. Simultaneously simple from a narrative perspective and endlessly complex from a moral, ethical, and philosophical standpoint, this is sure to divide audiences and whip up hate and adoration in equal measure. [Grade: B+]